Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Why Utilitarianism?

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 30, 2012

Why should one adopt utilitarianism rather than some other moral philosophy? This essay explains four simple principles from which the utilitarian position follows.

First, the purpose of morality is to do what is good and prevent what is bad. I hope no one disagrees with this.

Second, I define good in relation to myself by my interests or preferences. The things that I value for myself—physical health, intellectual engagement, human connection—I consider to be good for me. The things I want to avoid, I consider bad.

Third, all beings who hold interests deserve moral consideration. While I cannot experience anything beyond my own consciousness, I still must recognize the existence of consciousness outside of myself. Even though I cannot directly experience the good that others feel, I must acknowledge that good exists for others just as much as it does for myself. I hold certain interests and other sentient beings hold their own interests; I ought to respect their interests just as much as I respect my own. [1] I want to do the most good possible—even if the good affects others and not myself.

Fourth, an interest holds value in proportion to the strength of the interest. My desire for life overrides my desire for an adrenaline rush, so I do not jump off of a cliff. Similarly, different beings’ interests may be compared by considering the strengths of their interests.

Those who do not accept this claim have no way of judging one particular good as more significant than another. However, I cannot deny that some of my interests are more important than others, and it is worth violating a lesser interest to serve a greater one (e.g. giving up my temporary happiness by cleaning the dishes so that I can use them later). From this fact, it follows that some people have some interests that outweigh other people’s interests. For this reason, tyranny of the majority is unjustifiable, as the minority’s stronger preferences outweigh the majority’s weaker preferences. (For a more detailed explanation of why it is possible to judge one good as more significant than another, see “Measuring Happiness.”)

This is not to say it is always easy to determine which interests matter most. Doing so is often difficult, but rarely (if ever) impossible.

Utilitarianism is simply the combination of these four simple premises. Good is defined by individuals’ preferences; all beings capable of having preferences deserve moral consideration; some preferences take precedence over others. From these principles, one may determine (or at least approximate) the most ethical choice in every situation.


[1] Here, “respect” simply means an acknowledgement that the interest holds value. Some interests promote the general good more than others; for example, a desire to provide for one’s family does more good than a desire to indiscriminately murder people. If someone wanted to commit murder, I would try to prevent him from doing so, but only because the potential victim’s desire to live overrides the potential murderer’s desire to kill, and not because his interests do not hold value.

14 Responses to “Why Utilitarianism?”

  1. silverlining09 said

    very well explained… thank you!

  2. phynnboi said

    This is more a description of some kind of intuitional utilitarianism than an argument for why one should choose utilitarianism over any other ethical system. For one thing, it doesn’t even mention any other ethical system! It’d have been nice to have seen a comparison against other systems on certain points, and why the alternatives are inferior.

    • I didn’t think it was necessary for my purposes to talk about other ethical theories, since those theories do not follow from my first principles. If I were to write about other ethical theories, I would probably say something like this:

      Philosophical libertarianism values liberty only because people desire liberty. Surely, if no one wanted personal liberty, it would not be a worthwhile end. So the true motivation is not liberty, but individuals’ preferences. Libertarianism claims that a particular preference (that is, the preference for liberty) can never be violated for any reason, and this claim must be justified.

      • phynnboi said

        “since those theories do not follow from my first principles.”

        You’ve not proven this, and I doubt you could do so without talking about other ethical systems.

        “Philosophical libertarianism values liberty only because people desire liberty. Surely, if no one wanted personal liberty, it would not be a worthwhile end.”

        This is irrelevant, because it is not the case that no one wants personal liberty. Lots of people want it.

        It’s also kind of Mad Lib-y. We could just as easy shift the system and the values into the following and it’d make just as much sense: “Utilitarianism values maximizing overall happiness only because people desire happiness. Surely, if no one wanted happiness, it would not be a worthwhile end.”

        • I see your point. I may add some stuff where I talk about how other ethical theories conflict with these first principles.

          It’s also kind of Mad Lib-y. We could just as easy shift the system and the values into the following and it’d make just as much sense: “Utilitarianism values maximizing overall happiness only because people desire happiness. Surely, if no one wanted happiness, it would not be a worthwhile end.”

          If no one wanted happiness, then happiness would not be a worthwhile end. That’s why people invented preference utilitarianism, which states that we should maximize that satisfaction of preferences.

        • phynnboi said

          We could then say, “Preference utilitarianism values maximizing the satisfaction of preferences. Surely, if no one wanted to maximize the satisfaction of preferences, it would not be a worthwhile end.” People might, e.g., want to satisfy preferences without maximizing said satisfaction. One could step back and say, “Ah, but that desire itself represents a preference, and is thus the preference which they are trying to maximize by virtue of always doing it.” Perhaps, although at that point, preference utilitarianism becomes descriptive rather than normative (i.e., it describes something that everyone is always doing, anyway, whether they want to be or not), which I’m guessing is not its aim!

        • Someone might not want to maximize the satisfaction of his preferences per se, but still wants to fulfill each individual preference. That’s descriptive. The normative part comes in when we say that you should also try to satisfy the preferences of all sentient beings—people already do this to a large extent, but do not strictly follow preference utilitarianism.

        • Virtue Ethics all the way! In my humble opinion.

        • Hi Justin,

          Thank you for following my blog! I am always happy to see new readers.

          Perhaps you can clarify something for me regarding virtue ethics? I have hardly studied it, and I understand it more poorly than any other popular ethical school. If virtue ethics says we should do things because they are virtuous, how do we determine what is virtuous?

  3. Well, virtue ethics doesn’t say that we should do things simply because they are virtuous. Rather, we should do virtuous acts because living virtuously leads us to flourish as human beings. Now, you could then ask; How do we determine what is flourishing? But, this question can be asked of all ethical theories. How do we determine the most happiness, or what action maximizes happiness the best, etc. How do we know if happiness is the same for you and I and if in fact a certain act will produce more or less of it. There are many different ways of responding for all theorists and VE is no different in that regard. Flourishing is subjective, but, not completely relativistic. VE cares about consequences but the focus of their theory is on character and not the consequences, per say.

  4. yboris said

    Reblogged this on YBoris and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  5. LP said

    I enjoyed the essay.
    For clarification’s sake, could your argument be written thus:
    (1) The purpose of morality is to determine what is good and bad. Good things should be encouraged and bad things should be avoided. {I’ve just made this a bit more precise, right?}
    (2) Good and bad are personal conceptions based on the individual preferences of particular wills. (“will”: a being with interests) {I’ve moved this from a statement about the author to a statement about wills in general. Is this what you were implying?)
    (3) Multiple wills exist, not all of which are my own. Each will’s interests deserve consideration when assessing whether an action should be taken (in particular, those interests that are relevant to the action in question).
    (4) When considering which actions should be taken, interests hold value in proportion to their intensity.

    • I pretty much agree with your rephrasing, except for this point:

      Good and bad are personal conceptions

      This isn’t exactly what I meant. Good and bad are objective; they should not differ from person to person. (If person A believes that something is good and person B believes that it is bad, someone must be wrong.) However, good and bad do rely on subjective preferences; without such preferences, good and bad would not exist.

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